As the US readies its military to counter China in the Indo-Pacific, its forces face a more significant challenge back home. The US Army that enforces the American writ in territories far away from its borders and distant lands now finds it difficult to get people to wear military boots.
While the US Military finds many people unfit to join forces, Gen Z is not particularly enthused about joining the all-volunteer force and fighting wars in other countries, resulting in the US military recruitment reaching crisis levels.
The last two decades of war have caused public confidence in the US Army to plummet, with only 60 percent of respondents saying they have confidence in the US military. The Gallup poll statistics are the lowest in over two decades. The US Military personnel were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq during this period.
Matthew Gault, defense writer for the Vice, while enumerating reasons for the US Army’s worst recruitment crisis in five decades, said: “I think the probably the biggest one right now this immediate drop is the end of the war in Afghanistan, the American withdrawal from it and how quickly the Taliban was able to retake it, there was a lot of terrible optics, there’s a lot of terrible footage, a lot of horrifying stories that happened in the immediate wake of that.”
He added, “Confidence in the military goes down when America loses a war.”
In the early morning of August 31, 2021, the last American soldiers lifted off from Kabul airport, officially ending the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the longest in US history. At its peak in 2011, the US had approximately 100,000 troops across at least ten military bases from Bagram to Kandahar.
As per the Pentagon, more than 800,000 US soldiers served in the war. But when the troops left, Afghanistan was not better than what it was earlier, and America was not any safer than what it was.
The just retired US Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville accepted in January 2023 that the Army has fallen behind its recruitment goals, making it double back on its retention goals. But the Army was still 12,000 short of its goal of 465,000 soldiers.
The Pentagon has swung into action to make the armed forces’ job more lucrative and fix what is fast becoming a national security issue.
The US Congress in 2023 approved a five percent increase in military pay, the highest in the last two decades. The military has pushed the enlistment bonuses as high as US$50,000 and is offering a ‘quick ship’ cash incentive of up to US$35,000 for recruits who leave for basic training within 30 days.
The military is loosening its restrictions on neck tattoos and other standards to widen its recruitment pool. In 2022, the Army briefly dropped its requirement for a high school diploma before reverting to the older requirements.
No Sunlight On The Horizon For US Army
In 2022, the US Army’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Joseph M. Martin, informed a House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness hearing that the Army is going to fall by nearly 19,000 soldiers in fiscal 2022, and in 2023, it will be only short of 18,000 people.
The representative in the senate called the situation alarming. “There is no sunlight on the horizon,” Senator Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said at a hearing on recruiting and retention on September 21.
“It’s becoming clear the all-volunteer force that has served our country well for the last 50 years is at an inflection point. …The truth of the matter is unless we do things differently… I believe every service except for the Space Force is at risk of missing their recruiting mission over the next year, and we need to act,” he said.
As Americans ponder where the soldiers have gone, the suggestions to make the Army lucrative for Gen Z include accepting that the youngsters today are much more medicated.
According to Dr. Lindsay Cohn, an associate professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College, the US Army has taken steps to allow more Americans with a history of specific mental health issues to serve, but unnecessarily exclusive policies still exist.
For example, she said that rules saying recruits need to be off medication for conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) for 15 months or more don’t reflect a world in which both diagnosis and treatment of these conditions are much more prevalent than in the past.
Experts also seek relaxation in fitness standards as future warfare might not entail everyone picking a weapon and becoming an infantryman. People in cyber units don’t require the same fitness levels as infantry personnel.
The US controls about 750 bases in at least 80 countries worldwide and spends more on its military than the following 10 countries combined.
The actual number may be even higher as not all data is published by the Pentagon. With 120 active bases, Japan has the highest number of US bases globally, followed by Germany with 119 and South Korea with 73.
These long-distance deployments take a toll on the family life, tarnishing the sheen of military jobs.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com